By Ryan Divish The News Tribune
PEORIA, Ariz. — Outfielder Casper Wells doesn’t need to look at what the media has been writing or spend hours studying the roster to understand he’s in the midst of a battle to make the Seattle Mariners.
He simply needs to look in his immediate surroundings and do some quick math to understand the competition he faces.
To his right, Michael Morse’s massive frame is fiddling with the clubhouse music player while Franklin Gutierrez bobs his head to the beat. Wells can look to his left and usually see Michael Saunders messing with one of his swing gadgets he uses for batting practice.
And just across from Wells’ locker, veterans Jason Bay and Raul Ibanez are usually coming and going at all times. Heck, even Carlos Peguero and Eric Thames loom in the same 20-foot radius.
That’s eight players competing for what likely will be five outfield roster spots. It could have been nine players in the mix if Mike Carp hadn’t been traded.
“You have a lot of good players on this team and I think the Mariners are the ones in probably a good position for themselves,” Wells said. “That’s always better than not having enough.”
Wells has been around long enough to know that he can’t get caught up in the day-to-day performances of himself or his competition. Nothing good can from that.
“They’re the ones that have to make decisions,” he said of the Mariners’ management. “I just go out there and play.”
Wells has gotten the opportunity to do that this spring. It’s produced mixed results. He started off slowly, hitting .111 (2-for-18) in his first six spring.
“I’ve been hitting some balls hard this spring at people,” he said. “I feel like I’m having a good approach at the plate.”
But on Monday, the hard hit balls didn’t go at someone, they found open space. Wells went 3-for-4 with an RBI single, a double and a three-run triple against the Rockies. Of course, he isn’t foolish enough to think one good game will get him on the team.
“It’s good,” he said. “It’s kind of reassuring. I’ve tried to stick to a diligent plan of staying disciplined in my routines. It was nice to see some results.”
Looking at Wells’ swing this year, it’s a little shorter and more compact than a year ago. He didn’t undergo a massive overhaul like Michael Saunders did a year ago. But he made some subtle changes.
“He’s worked hard to shorten up his swing and it’s been showing so far this spring,” Mariners manage Eric Wedge said. “I think it will allow him to see the ball better and hit more consistently.”
So, how did it happen?
“I was just swinging a lot in the offseason,” he said. “Last year, I probably didn’t swing as much as I should have. But I was at the facility this offseason doing a lot of stuff off the tee with video just so I could visually see how it looks and how it felt that day.”
But bigger than any swing tweaks was a change in his attitude. Wells believes he has found something that works with his swing and he isn’t going to give up on it.
“Last year, if something wasn’t working I’d be quick to fix it or do something else,” he said. “I’m trying to be consistent with my swing and my approach. If you are always trying to change something, you are not going to be consistent.”
And consistency at the plate is the only thing keeping Wells from being a lock to make the team. Defensively, he’s outstanding. He can play all three outfield positions at an above average level, he has good speed to track down balls and has one of the best throwing arms on the team.
“It’s obvious what kind of athlete he is,” Wedge said.
But the hitting has been up and down with the ups being shorter than the downs.
Wedge gave Wells a chance last year during the season. From June 28 to August 4, Wells started 32 straight games. During that time he hit .203 (26-for-128) with five homers and 15 RBI. He had a .266 on-base percentage and a .375 slugging percentage. He struck out 36 times and walked just eight times during that span.
But this shorter swing should help Wells be a little more consistent and avoid some of the long slumps.
“I think it will, and I think it will allow him to see the ball better,” Wedge said. “It puts him in a better position to hit more consistently, and that’s what we’re trying to get these guys to do.”
Wells’ defense might still be good enough to keep him in the big leagues even if the offense is still sporadic. Morse, Ibanez and Bay are all less than average defensive outfielders. Having Wells as a fourth-outfielder and late-inning defensive replacement would be extremely valuable. It may be enough to get him on the 25-man roster.
With Gutierrez, Saunders, Morse and Ibanez all seeming to be locks on the team, Wells is liklely battling it out with Bay and to a lesser regard Peguero and Thames for that last spot.
If he can have a few more games like he had on Monday and continue to put together quality at-bats, he will be on the team. If he doesn’t and Bay plays well, Wells could be out of the organization.
Wells is out of minor league options. He would have to be designated for assignment by the Mariners if he doesn’t make the team out of spring training. Wells would seem likely to be claimed off of waivers because of his ability to play multiple outfield positions.
Ideally, that scenario won’t occur.
“My goal is to be in the big leagues,” he said. “I love the Mariners organization and I’d love to be with the Mariners my whole career. I love it here. So whatever happens, happens. It is business. I understand that. I’ve been traded before, so I understand. I’m not new to it. I’ll just go out and take care of my business and let the chips fall where they may.”